Saturday, March 31, 2007

Money for nothing and your chips for free

The Guardian’s Polly Toynbee, normally close critical friend of New Labour and self-appointed sentinel in charge of directing positive feedback, has gone strangely off message and incurred the wrath of super-sensitive Secretary of State for Culture, Tessa ‘The Scowl’ Jowell (pictured). Remarkable, as the impeccably credentialed bastion of soft socialism, dedicated to providing guidance notes for elected members not blessed with such a fine a pedigree in social awareness, has always been so careful to temper her watching brief in order to maintain what she considers to be our only hope for decent government. Unfortunately she’s mistaken by a factor of one, but maybe she’s working that one out for herself.

As lovers often do, the heavenly match has fallen out over money. It’s fair to say that The Toynbee has always been vigilant when it comes to the wasting of public money and it has been pretty much a full time job for her over the last ten years attempting to keep up with the volume of it that this government has wasted on fool ideas that did everything but bring benefits to the disadvantaged for which it was intended. Removing her ‘critical friend’ beret and replacing it with a sturdy tin hat, The Toynbee poised herself to kill some bill,

Some terrible errors - the Iraq war - can't be undone. But others can be remedied. Tomorrow Labour MPs and peers have a chance to reject one of the oddest policies to emerge from No 10. The gambling bill seeks to put a super casino in poverty-stricken east Manchester, with 16 more casinos elsewhere. It is part of the same misguided vision that announced: "Britain should become a world leader in the field of online gambling" - attempting to turn the UK into Europe's offshore gambling den.(The Guardian, 27th March).

No shit Sherlock you could say – but clearly someone did need to. Just to make sure no one was in any doubt, she added,

UK gambling turnover is soaring, up from £2bn to £50bn in just four years from 2001-2005, much of it online. Why? There is money to burn in the high-rolling City bonus world, but plenty of low-income punters are losing heavily too. Research suggested some 370,000 addicts in 2004, probably many more. The suffering of addicts' families in all social classes stays hidden: those children are often the very poorest, whatever their apparent household income. The more gambling there is, the more addicts are created. Why would a Labour government committed to abolishing child poverty encourage yet more?

I don’t mean to be rude but you would have thought that anyone who had been this close to this Government for this long, would have worked out by now that they would do anything to bolster the GDP which they are firmly convinced is the only attribute of nationhood worth a bean. It doesn’t matter how money circulates, it just matters that it does. Who in their right mind would be able to convince themselves that a gambling den could ever be the wellspring of social regeneration in an area with complex deprivation issues going back thirty or more years? Can you see people living in substandard housing for which they pay rent as high as some people’s mortgages, receiving the crappiest education possible, enduring some of the most violent and persistent crime in the country and suffering from the poorest standards of mental and physical well-being going ‘hurrah I can now get a job at Hurrah’s, let the good dimes roll’. I don’t think so somehow. When our local Poundstretcher was replaced by a Ladbrokes, the neighbourhood nosedived I can tell you!

The gloom that envelopes people who’ve just lost all their money is bad enough when it’s perched on your high street and you occasionally get shoved out of the way by a disgruntled punter at the end of a losing streak making his way home to face the music, but imagine it plummeting down in the centre of a community struggling under the weight of multiple deprivation, like a giant casino-shaped meteor.

The Scowl, however was never one to be dissuaded by common sense, logic, hard evidence or silly old morals. Spinning off a quick missive to the editor of The Guardian the day after The Toynbee attack, The Scowl retaliated,

‘It is astonishing that Toynbee still believes that I would introduce these casinos if I thought they would increase child poverty.’

Well that’s all right then. The Scowl simply doesn’t believe that gambling increases child poverty. As a marvellously cutting denouement, The Guardian’s letters editor printed a poignant testimony from someone whose childhood was seriously blighted by gambling immediately beneath The Scowl’s arrogant riposte to The Toynbee. The letter was from Dominic Carman, the son of one of Britain’s most famous and flamboyant QCs. I hasten to assure you that I attribute no more importance to the horror of this man’s experience than I would to that of someone whose family had no public profile, however, George Carman QC, was someone who was at the centre of British high society and whose behaviour must have been both apparent and excused in all its corridors of power. Dominic Carman writes,

‘ … it was in the casinos of Manchester that my father, George Carman QC, an educated and highly successful man… lost millions at the Black Jack table. Pouring his hard-earned money into the casinos over 30 years, he gambled our house away – twice.’

Dominic Carman goes on to clarify that although his family was never poor, they were most assuredly at the mercy of his father’s out of control behaviour and concludes,

There were other factors at play : his heavy drinking and domestic violence. Ultimately these three elements became inextricably linked.

I know, I know. Freedom of choice. The Scowl is all too keen to stress that the proposed Gambling Bill is going to be heavily regulated and require casinos to promote ‘socially responsible gambling’ – that should be interesting. I wonder if it will be as successful as the campaign to label cigarette packets with the calm message ‘Smoking Kills!’ - which not surprisingly had no impact at all on people for whom smoking is one of the few pleasures in life. Here is the crux. As you may know, I play the lottery to the tune of a princely £2 per week. I am aware that the odds of winning it are about 76 million to one. I also know that twice a week about half a dozen people win enough money to retire on. I enjoy it, and believe me, my family has nothing to lose and everything to gain. I also smoke about half a dozen cigarettes a year and it’s always possible I suppose that one of them will kill me. I’m lucky, I have options. Just imagine that you live in a place where the super casino provides your employment and your social life and there’s nothing else to do but swaps sides of the table once your shift is over.

Happily the proposed Gambling Bill was defeated in the Lords on Wednesday but I’d put real money down on it not being over, not by a long chalk…

Photo from

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Amazing Dross

Amazing Grace is a very nice film about a terribly earnest man who eventually persuaded his peers to do the jolly decent thing and abolish slavery. To be fair to the radical 18th Century politician William Wilberforce, he did dedicate his life to the then cloud cuckoo cause of ‘equality’ for all, the centrepiece of which was to end the abhorrent trans-Atlantic slave trade. The film’s release is timed to mark the 200th anniversary of Wilberforce’s fifteen year battle to get a bill passed in the parliament of the day to outlaw the kidnap, rape, murder and false imprisonment for life of any man, woman or child who happened to get in the way of a British (or Spanish or Danish or French etc) profiteer with a ship and the funding to get it to the west coast of Africa. The film has been criticised for its failure to present a black perspective. With the exception of Olaudau Equiano, the former slave who wrote a best selling book about his experiences, there are no black people in Amazing Grace. The fact is that black people didn’t feature in discussions about slavery any more than chickens would be invited to debate the ethics of battery farming today.

It’s not a bad film. I didn’t go with any huge expectations that it would cover the half a millennium in which Africans endured slavery in any panoramic kind of way. I’ve read Hugh Thomas’s comprehensive and emotionless 1997 compendium The Slave Trade : The History of the Atlantic Slave Trade 1440-1870. I know the facts. I didn’t expect a film to provide me with an explanation – just as well. Emerging from the cinema, I’d many questions to occupy me on the long walk home across Victoria Park. Principle among these is why the fuck is our present Prime Minister, Tony Blah Blah Blair so reluctant to make a formal apology for the part that the British establishment played in the blatantly unlawful enslavement of humans for profit and empire.

All the tiresome lame old excuses masquerading as arguments are dragged out to justify the unjustifiable. ‘Why don’t we ask the Romans to apologise for conquering and enslaving us Britons’? Well, let me think. Perhaps because there are no Romans left, the Barbarians got them all. In any case we’d all be standing in front of the mirror demanding penance from ourselves as, chances are, most of us have got some of that Roman blood in our own ancestry. Besides the Romans gave us running water, under floor heating, wine and chariot races, whereas the ongoing legacy of slavery is the Diaspora and its devastating impact on the identity of its displaced peoples.

The ‘shit happens’ apologists love to remind us that Africans participated in the capture and sale of their own people. True but there is no getting around the fact that white people who bought, transported, brutalised and exploited black people did not credit them with humanity. If it was really just a matter of plundering whatever free labour could be found, why didn’t the slave traders grab the destitute off the streets of Bethnal Green? No one would have missed them. Why were no other conquered peoples enslaved in this way? Maybe the Chinese and Indians were not considered physically sturdy enough to survive the murderous conditions of transport and a life of hard labour or maybe it was because they made buildings and grew crops and, in the eyes of Europeans, this made them ‘civilised’. Black people were more animal than human.

Some say that an apology would have ‘no meaning’. Well, I have to say, it usually works on me. If anything, the refusal to make one when there is such obvious call for it smacks of an ongoing superiority and arrogance. There are plenty of stupid people prepared to tell radio talk shows that Blah Blah shouldn’t apologise because he wasn’t personally responsible for the slave trade. No, I would respond, stretching my patience to record limits, but he is the head of the British Parliament which is the direct successor of a parliament in which many individuals reaped huge personal gain from slavery. This parliament also had the power to end this misery and refused for the best part of twenty years, even in the face of the most appalling barbarity. In the end, it wasn't conscience but trickery that turned the tide.

Suspicious minds suppose that the Government is petrified that an admission of liability might lead to an avalanche of compensation claims. I’m no lawyer but I suspect that there is no lack of evidence available when it comes to the culpability of British officials and businessmen in exploiting and prolonging the slave trade for personal gain. It probably wouldn’t hang on a confession from Blah Blah. I believe that a formal apology from the British Government would be a good start in acknowledging that millions of individual black people are living with the legacy of their ancestors’ suffering whether it be in poverty in the West Indies or southern states of North America. All black people of the Diaspora have had their culture abused and their identity molested by these events.

With the fluff of Amazing Grace out of the way, I was very grateful for Sunday night’s BBC2 offering In Search of Nanny Maroon, the Ms Dynamite narrated history of the Boudicca of the Jamaican slave rebellion. Long before Wilberforce rolled up his mutton-chop sleeves in preparation for his long crusade to find hearts in the parliamentarians of Westminster, a group of slaves escaped into the bushes and, led by the strategic genius Nanny Maroon, waged devastating guerrilla war on the sugar plantation owners and their British military protectors. Nanny is believed to be the first war leader to use camouflage. The Maroons tied fern leaves to their heads and ambushed the British, inflicting such decisive and repeated injury that they eventually accepted defeat and, in 1738, signed a treaty with the Maroons.

Freedom is never bestowed, it’s always hard won. Learning the story of Nanny Maroon provided me with a small, important piece of what is a very large hole in the big jigsaw that is the slave trade. But where are the other stories of black slaves who organised, rebelled and sacrificed their lives to change their fate and that of future generations? With the black contribution to abolition invisible, (The Maroons don't even rate a mention in Hugh Thomas's book), it's only possible to view slavery from a European perspective, with black people seen only as nameless, helpless victims. Understandably Nanny’s a national hero in Jamaica and an image of her appears on banknotes. Why isn’t she as famous as Thomas Jefferson or Abraham Lincoln or even William Wilberforce? Could it be because she’s black – and a woman?

My grandmother’s grandfather was alive while slave trading was still legal. It wasn't that long ago. Self-flagellation or wallowing in guilt aren't called for – that really would be gross and pointless, but there is a need to acknowledge responsibility for and memorialise the genocide that was perpetrated by Europeans on Africans, just as there was a need to acknowledge and memorialise the holocaust. So, Blah, Blah – as much as it pains you to apologise for anything – here would be a good place to start. Just take a deep breath and say it,

On behalf of the Government of Great Britain, I apologise unreservedly for the part that this country played in the slave trade.

There, now that wasn’t so difficult, was it?

Picture - The Old Plantation from

Saturday, March 24, 2007

Hogg Heaven

Seriously, does anyone out there really get Gordon ‘Scrooge McDuck’ Brown? The ‘revelations’ this week that he is a Stalinist with contempt for each and every one of his colleagues have been greeted with a resounding ‘well, yeah, like tell us something we don’t know’. Yet the chorus of parliamentary insiders tumbling over themselves to privately confirm the blindingly obvious, are as one in terror of having their names linked to what is virtually a statement of incontrovertible fact. Everyone in Downy Street is shit-scared of this duck. Is that good?

If as party loyalist Harriet 'The Hen' Harman suggests for Stalinist control freak and general putsch fetishist we should read ‘strong leadership’, what does anyone have to worry about? Strong leadership is great, right? Personally I’m not that big on leadership and if it means working for a total cunt who terrifies you and makes your working life a suicidal misery then I’m fervently opposed to it. Call me old fashioned but my idea of a ‘boss’ is someone who knows more than you do but is still interested in finding out what you have to contribute. You willingly do what they ask because they have bothered to explain to you, or even work with you to ascertain that it is necessary. It’s a working practice I like to call co operation – not seen a lot anymore.

Ideally, your boss is not so eaten up by self-doubt that he couldn’t stomach even a sham of a contest for promotion. Hopefully the likes of Rowan Atkinson alike David Mild’n’bland or gob on a stick John ‘Chopper’ Reid would propel him towards the mirror where he would recite the mantra, ‘Bring it on’ – although doing it like Neil Kinnock would be self-defeating, obviously. Mostly, you’d want your boss, if you were to respect him at all, not to become so obsessed with being liked that he would lavish unwanted tax cuts on a population already drowning in their own excess disposable income and consumed with guilt about the contribution they are making to global warning with their dozen annual 99p Ryanair flights.

Or you could have a boss like Gordon Pell of the Royal Bank of Scotland who recently wrote to employees telling them that they must have their salaries paid into a RBS bank account. ‘Failure to do so’, he threatened, ‘will represent a breach of group policy and I will be obliged to write directly to your line manager asking them to progress this matter according to the group's disciplinary policy.’ Gosh, I’d be really scared. Of course, it’s only going to take five minutes to establish that this is completely unlawful. You just wonder what goes on in the heads of the people who come up with this crap. What possible gain would there be in bullying employees like this, except subjugation by terror? Does anyone truly think there’s a production positive there?

I’ve worked in the public sector. I know that bullying and threatening behaviour is a first, if not only resort for a lot of managers. Hell, I’m a housing association leaseholder for effsake. I am no stranger to the peculiarly adept strain of mental torture that has been perfected by these, the Boss Hoggs of social housing. But why, in gentle Britain - home of the co operative movement, Quaker businesses and tea shops with homemade fudge, have we suddenly gone from luncheon vouchers and Friday afternoons in the Frog and Nightingale to being stood over while we sign away our rights to be protected by the European Working Time Directive? It’s like no one who is designing these thumb screws has ever sat in an office and worked out that unhappy employees will find a way to thumb screw them right back by giving them the least amount of work possible for the twelve excruciating hours they are chained to their Health & Safety Executive approved work station.

Maybe there’s a reason the Government is resolutely refusing to issue a full apology for the role its long ago predecessor played in the slave trade on the two hundredth anniversary of its abolition, despite the certainty that there would only be a positive impact on the nation’s reputation and conscience by doing so. I’m thinking there might be a chance that someone, somewhere is looking at the viability of reintroducing slavery, for the good of the nation you understand…

Cartoon by Steve Bell from The Guardian

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

H is for Homerton, Heroin and Hell

Brilliant cartoon by Michael Leunig who has been my hero for thirty years.

In my delicate mental state I probably shouldn’t really be watching television shows like BBC2’s The Trap since it confirms what I have always suspected – that the world is actually being run by an evil mathematician from somewhere near to the earth’s core and that people who look powerful to us like Bill Gates and Rupert Murdoch, are really only munchkins in Armani, (or in the case of Bill Gates – vintage Man at C&A). The mathematician is responsible for the prevailing world view that if the greediest half dozen people in the world are allowed to hoover up ninety per cent of its wealth with no constraints whatever, it will be good for everyone. Would it be impertinent to suggest that this theory wasn't all that thoroughly thought through?

Last Sunday’s programme, the second of three, explored the mathematical foundation for the promotion of unbridled capitalism in the west since the Second World War. Using Game Theory, economists reduced human interaction to a series of selfish strategies motivated by individual ambition. As you know, I am not all that kindly disposed to the world at large, but even I have noticed that parents don’t immediately put their newborn babies up for sale on eBay despite the obvious financial potential created by the strong demand from Morgan Stanley high flyers who were so busy making moolah they clean forgot to make whoopee while their own biological window was still open. Despite its sixty year longevity, the theory seems flawed because – and this is quite a thing for me to say – most people aren’t selfish, money grabbing cunts – the media just makes it look that way.

But this economic theory has had a potent effect on western governments as politicians like nothing better than to have people reduced to numbers and New Labour have jumped on the algebra express with Keynesian keenness, resulting in the reduction of every aspect of public service to a series of Glengarry Glen Ross type impossible targets. It’s obviously a stretch to imagine Gordon ‘Scrooge McDuck’ Brown in the Alec Baldwin role, although Alec is looking a bit doughty and doughy himself of late, but the deal is pretty much the same – deliver the ‘outcomes’, as they like to call the heinous things they do to us, or hand in your BlackBerry.

The NHS was particularly hard hit by the target-driven approach to social order. The disinclination of humans to run their health as if it were the 7.42 from Bishops Stortford certainly sprinkled liberal quantities of the wrong kind of leaves on the tracks of Health Trusts’ journey plans. The Trap disclosed how ingenious hospital managers became at devising innovative schemes to reduce waiting lists without actually seeing the patients that were parked on them, presumably for good reason. One hospital wrote to all its waiting list patients to ask them when their holidays were and promptly scheduled their hip replacements while they were being wheel-chaired around Broadstairs. Short, easy operations like the removal of bunions were prioritised over brain surgery and you could no longer make an appointment with your GP for more than two days ahead, even if it would be more convenient for you.

But I was going to talk about the person who occupied the next bed for the four days I was on the gastro ward at the Homerton University (???) Hospital where they didn’t actually have any medicated or antiseptic cleaning products. Spew, shit and worse was mopped up with J-cloths whether it be on you, the floor, your beside table or Maeve Blinchy novel that you were given by the mobile library because that was the only book they had that wasn’t Mills & Boon. Holly (not her real name obviously), was a heroin user. I did not know this because of my superior powers of deduction and diagnosis, although I am beginning to think that I could cut it on CSI or ER as I certainly managed to work this out before any of the doctors and nurses had twigged.

Holly arrived an hour or two after I’d been moved to the ward at around ten in the evening with no notice at all and a misunderstanding with the porter in which he interpreted the question ‘why am I being moved?’ as an indolent refusal to co operate resulting in a bad-tempered oratory lasting the interminable journey, punctuated by occasionally body-jarring collisions with corners and parked life-support machines worth millions of pounds. After screaming in pain for an hour and being completely ignored by the night nurses who had all gathered to discuss the latest episode of Scrubs and flog gallstones on eBay, Holly made a phone call. Shortly thereafter she arose from her bed, got clobbered-up and announced that she was going for ‘a smoke’.

Some hours later Holly returned and I was woken by the sound of her chomping on fistfuls of crisps. The next morning, the sound of her groaning rewoke me. She called for the nurses. One of those ridiculous throw-away sick pots was produced into which she threw up the night before’s crisp feast and then clenched her stomach in pain. Nurses offered painkillers but Holly wouldn’t have any tablets because of the nausea (duh!). Eventually she was offered a morphine shot. She even enquired about the dose without raising an eyebrow – how many milligrams? 'No, I need more.'

Whereas a middle-aged lady like Pants, with all her own teeth and zero hospital admissions, was treated like a criminal for asking for painkillers at all, (I was even informed by a nurse barely out of training bras that morphine is ‘addictive’ – well yes, I suppose you could get addicted to the idea of not feeling like someone was attacking you with a fucking ice pick), Holly seemed able to write her own prescription.

The pattern continued over the four days we were neighbours. Holly would wake in the morning retching after her midnight feast and refuse to eat. She would call her large family, many of whom would be on the scene within the hour. Her staunch matriarch of a mother would pace and peruse Holly’s chart harrumphing knowingly ‘Morphine? Why they giving you that then? That’s for dead people’. Well, I guess she was in the ball park, sort of. The family would beseech the doctors to ‘find out what’s wrong with her’ to which the doctors would promise to do ‘the very best possible’. Holly would mercifully then sleep for the rest of the day, only waking to retch, yell and refuse food for long enough to achieve an injection of morphine.

Come the changeover to the languid night staff, Holly would again get herself kitted up and would be gone for hours for ‘a smoke’. Once she even brought ‘the man’, back for a little party. I knew it wasn’t her husband because I’d seen him – timid, damaged and confused, not having the vaguest idea of what to say or do. After that night, the incoming nurses found Holly’s bedside table littered with crisp packets and soft drink bottles and a mysterious brown liquid on the floor which they circled for a long time before finally identifying as ‘chocolate’. The overturned carton nearby was the giveaway clue. A great deal of deliberation was necessary to work out how to deal with this situation as there are no actual cleaning products and no one knows where the cleaners keep their mop and bucket. It was finally decided that a bath towel was the appropriate, or perhaps only, solution and one of the nurses duly tossed one over the brown mess.

Holly is a daily heroin user. I know this because she told one of the doctors who was on the ball enough to ask a couple of obvious questions.
Do you use heroin?
Do you use it every day?
Do you inject or smoke it?

But then the doctor completely blew it by explaining that because Holly used heroin, it might mean that other painkillers did not work so well on her. They didn’t find anything wrong with Holly. She had a non-specific pain that she could not describe. She was using other medications as well. In addition to her night-time connections, she was popping her own anti-depressants quite openly. What is going on here, I asked myself.

Holly is of mixed race. I know this because I saw her white mother and black father visit. I started to wonder if narrow, phobic targets and fear of being accused of cultural stereotyping might be playing a part in the reluctance of healthcare staff to recognise that Holly had a very specific health problem that they should be able to address without worrying about triggering headlines in the Daily Mail. Both of us, in our own very different ways, were numbers that didn’t add up. It’s time for a new theory about how we look after each other…

Thursday, March 15, 2007

A Poo Collapse

Painting 'Henry Ford Hospital' by Frida Kahlo

A Turkish friend was incarcerated in the Homerton Hospital for over a week once. He would grab hold of your sleeve when you visited him and beg you to get him out. ‘Dey vill keel me’, he’d plead. I too came to know that terror. I do not need too much inducement to believe that people who do not seem to know which end of a speculum is up, may very well be capable of involuntary manslaughter.
Homerton Hospital does seem to operate in a kind of vacuum where ‘competency’ is not really a concept that pierces the reality bubble terribly often. In fact, the hospital functions rather like the Warhammer 40,000 Omnissiah with hospital staff as Adeptus Mechanicus. Every process is designed to serve the function of the hospital itself. The arrival of ‘patients’ anywhere in the hospital at any time is treated initially with shock, then a prolonged consternation which is maintained until you, the patient, muster the decency to go away and leave the entity to its mysterious business. The task of the Adeptus Mechanicus is to make hospital life as unattractive as possible to facilitate this end.

You will recall that I was admitted to the Homerton with a bizarre case of constipation, something I have never had before in my life. Within the space of twenty-four delirium-filled hours, my faecal fur-ball which I named Eraserhead reached the size of a grapefruit and no laxative conceived by medical science was going to shift it. It was into the house of horrors for me and onto the conveyor belt for a place in the operating theatre to have it all scraped out. My lower-half seemed to take on a life of its own, crumpling up in regular convulsions, much to the amusement and wonder of the medical staff who had apparently never experienced such a thing before.
Eraserhead was growling away inside me and these convulsions were more or less constant and I was hooked up to a cannula and a catheter and a thisiter and a thatiter, so I found it difficult to, shall we say, groom. This did not go down at all well with nursing staff who left me lying in my own shit for hours and hours only occasionally passing by to sniff in disgust. This was a huge shock as I thought they only did that to old people. If I was a dog in an animal hospital and the RSPCA came and found me in that state, the vet would be hauled off to court for cruelty.

At first, when they told me I was going onto a ‘gastro’ ward, I was quite pleased but it doesn’t mean the same thing in a hospital. In any case, they would not allow me to eat. I also found it very difficult to get into the whole question-and answer routine. Questions to you are really just an interrogation in a rich mix of Medieval and broken English.

‘When did you last pass a stool?’
‘I can’t recall exactly but I do remember several plastic chairs about an hour ago.’

Questions from you are ignored, in any and all languages.

My Turkish friend was asked in hospital if he’d ‘passed water’ and he promptly handed the nurse his plastic drinking cup. Our old friends the Plain English Campaign might like to wield their red pens over some of the archaic terms in the medical canon.

The Homerton is a ‘teaching’ hospital which means every couple of hours a large group of people stand over you and talk to each other as if you were a living cadaver. Invariably one of them will want to poke you in the stomach, (although they will call it ‘tummy’), and listen to the noise your back makes with their stethoscope, presumably because they have seen real doctors do it on ER. I’ve always had a very quiet back – no one’s ever complained it kept them awake – so I don’t know what they hoped to gain from listening to it. In idle moments I flipped through my patient notes to see if I could get some insight into what was going on with my ‘case’ as no one seemed to want to talk to me about it. In lovely curlicue writing was the following
‘Goals – for Noosa to be able to evacuate bowels satisfactorily and to be pain free’ – how sweet!

After three very long days with no food, an alarmingly dishevelled anaesthetist came to visit me to inform me that I had finally been scheduled for theatre but one thing was puzzling him,
'Why have they scheduled you for six o’clock?’ he enquired.
‘It was the only time I could do’, I replied.

Even in Warhammer 40,000 that would have been an odd question and, ultimately superfluous as that slot came and went and I was finally wheeled into theatre just before two in the morning where I gave birth to Eraserhead who is now for sale on eBay. One thing that is a relief – you may recall my fears about the NHS’s insidious database. Well, I was asked for my personal details at least five times and, on not one occasion did anyone who came looking for me ever find me without extreme difficulty. The NHS may be collecting vast screeds of data on us all, but rest assured, it has not the tiniest capacity for making any use of it whatever. So relax.

Next time – I’m not going to promise tomorrow because I might not feel up to it – hi-jinks in the next bed!

Friday, March 09, 2007

Pants Full of Shit - Exclusive

Cartoon from
Every now and again a pedantic nit-picker will take issue with me on something I’ve written pointing out that the British Government hasn’t actually introduced the draconian and barbaric law which threatens the very triple-knit polyester of our society that I’ve railed feverishly against. My answer to which is usually ‘how could you tell?’ In any case, it is bound to one day. No lesser person than Harry Belafonte was on Radio 4 this week warning that ‘governments are always finding new ways of oppressing people.’ I’m sure I haven’t thought of everything. I have had emails from both Gordon ‘Scrooge McDuck’ Brown and John ‘Chopper’ Reid thanking me for giving them some very good ideas for further impoverishing the disadvantaged and frightening the socks off anyone even thinking about coming to Britain to conduct any business other than emptying their wallets at the box offices of our great West End theatres.

In the past I have never had a problem reconciling my forthrightness of view with the complete lack of detailed knowledge that I bring to the multitude of subjects that I embrace. However, I’ve reached a time of life where I would like to be taken seriously as a journalist, so I have done a very unpants-like thing and gone undercover for some factual research. Actually, I was under quite a lot of covers. Don’t worry, Robbie Williams was not involved, that’s another story. I will now reveal where I have been for the last week.

As you know, the British Union of Medicophobes (BUM) has its headquarters right here at House of Pants. I have pilloried our healthcare system from afar whilst basking in the state of perpetual fitness which I sincerely believe is a combination of genes unpredisposed to any of the tedious present day maladies, good food, regular exercise and a sneering disregard for the pathetic letters that seem to arrive weekly from our local medical practice begging me to have this and that scanned for fear that they might fail to meet some pointless target. I have always said that if something wanted me badly enough, it could have me. What I had not taken into account was what that ‘something’ might turn out to be.

In my own defence I was thinking of a romantic condition where I could swoon a bit and then expire painlessly. To be honest, I hadn’t really thought it through. But events overtook me and I was breach delivered, somewhat belatedly, into the world of illness and pain that most adults of my age have known quite intimately, many times. I was a stranger in that place.

On the evening of Friday last when I staggered down my hallway in my grubby pink terry towelling dressing gown clutching the phone and trying to remember whether it is 999, 000 or 911 for an ambulance in Britain (now isn’t that just crying out to be globally standardised), I had my first  life-and-death moment. I really did freeze there for about twenty minutes between crippling stomach contractions trying to work out whether it would be more dignified to collapse in the hallway and not be found for three weeks or launch myself to the fates. I made the decision to LIVE and staggered across the hall to my neighbours who fortunately knew the number for the ambulance.

Cut to me slumped in a hard plastic chair in A&E at Homerton Hospital on a Friday night at 10pm in only my pink terry towelling dressing gown. I had neither contact lenses nor glasses so could not see a thing. In retrospect this is probably just as well. I remained there for three hours before anyone came anywhere near me. I moaned, groaned and whimpered but, having never been in a hospital before as an emergency patient, I did not know that although anywhere else in the world these utterances are universally recognised as signifiers of pain, in a controlled medical environment they are indicators of bad character and lack of consideration for others’ feelings. Even if you think you are dying, in a British hospital it seems like it’s not good etiquette to make too much of a fuss about it. I’m OK with that if it’s really a rule but they might have said. I’m sure I would have taken account of a leaflet about that if I’d got one.

I was not to know at that moment – to be fair I did have other things to worry about – that Pants had gone Gonzo. I always wondered why my reasonably fit 77-year-old mother who is quite often hospitalised because she has asthma, took so much care and attention over her hospital bag. Now I know. When you land in hospital in a manky dressing gown with nothing underneath and no shoes and in a dishevelled and confused state because you have spent the last twenty-four hours pondering what is wrong with you rather than packing matching pyjama sets, you translate as mad.

What was wrong with me? A faecal fur-ball which would eventually reach the size of a grapefruit was growling away, begging to be recognised by a competent physician. Sadly, Maimonides was not answering his pager. When I said that if something wanted me badly enough it could have me, I was not thinking that ‘something’ might be constipation. I’d not had it before and didn’t recognise the early warning signs. I’d never taken laxatives nor would I have known what to ask for if I’d needed them. What I did manage to intuit in the early stages of this ordeal is that constipation is not a romantic death.

Next - Pants' hospital ordeal unfolds like a roll of Andrex for you and the rhinoceros of your choice...

Thursday, March 01, 2007

Smells Like Mean Spirit

Have I mentioned that I live right next to the site of the proposed London Olympics? That’s a rhetorical question by the way, much like this one,

Is it possible to establish an upper limit to the cost of staging this international egg and spoon convention?

I have two words – Wembley and Stadium. But it’s much, much worse than that. Imagine a thousand Wembley Stadiums being constructed out of ice in the middle of summer on time and on budget and you may have an inkling of the fiasco that is unfolding in impoverished east London. The evening papers are all today reporting that the ‘estimate’ of the cost of staging this sack race fest has nearly quadrupled from the original ball park of £2.375 billion, which incidentally the Olympic Committee accepted as a bone fide competitive tender amount, to a staggering £10 billion. And there’s still five years to go. And barely a sod has been turned on the site.

For the past year and a half the Government has been reassuring us that most of the runaway train of a budget would be dedicated to ‘regeneration’ and even more particularly, to ‘sustainable development’. Call me picky but it is kind of difficult to establish whether or not a development is going to be sustainable when you have no idea what it will entail. Yes. That’s right. There is no detail available to local residents on what this ‘regeneration’ is going to look like.

On the other hand, we certainly do know what it is not going to bring. Improved transport for one. There will not be a tube connection to the site. If ever there was a missed opportunity this is it. Hackney is a vast corner of central London that is notable for its lack of inclusion on the underground rail system. A timely extension of the existing East London Line will carry the tube into Dalston in the south-east corner of the borough but no further. I have visions of hundreds of thousands of people waiting to board the 236 bus in Ridley Road market to travel the last couple of miles to our state of the art sports pavilions along with locals bringing home their bags of plantains, yams and breadfruit. My advice to Olympic visitors is to buy closing ceremony tickets and set off on day one. With luck you’ll get there in time to hear Oasis’s especially commissioned version of The Banana Boat Song.

It seems the latest uncertainties have even rattled insiders. The Metro reports,

British Olympic legend Sir Steve Redgrave today voiced his worries and urged the Government to end speculation about the increasing costs.

The five-times Olympic champion rower said: "I have found it frustrating and I will be very satisfied when we will get to a point where they say 'this is the budget, this is the money we have got to spend'.

"If you were building a house or an extension you would have a budget to spend. I think the British public would prefer that."

I’m sure they would Sir Steve. I propose that we give the Olympics to Paris because they really should have had it in the first place and spend £10 billion giving everyone in Britain an extension.

Also in Olympic news this week is the latest ‘initiative’ to identify sports men and women for Team Britain! Whilst other countries have been tediously funding sporting academies and dull collegiate systems for decades to support their athletes, we in Britain have embraced the true entrepreneurial challenge of uncovering an elite band of sports men and women worthy of representing their country, by complete accident. This is the British democratic way. It is incongruous with our national character to look like we care a jot about trivial old sporting contests (unless of course we happen to win, in which case whatever we win at has always been very dear to us).

Our fresh and new approach is fiendishly simple. Government researchers have been ensconced for months reviewing statistics relating to sporting prowess and have come up with a devastating formula – successful athletes are, on the whole, quite tall. So, sporting scouts are, as I write, scouring the country in search of young men of at least 6’ 3” and young women of 5’11” or more to make up our Olympic team. It doesn’t matter apparently if they have never done any sport before. This method, at least, is endorsed by Sir Steve Redgrave who revealed that he was channelled into rowing because a master at his school noticed that he had big hands and feet. He could just as easily have ended up as a porn star if the master had possessed different tastes. I guess we’ll never know. Our gold medal winning runner Dame Kelly Holmes at 5’ 3” would certainly not make the cut so it’s just as well she’s already retired.

Although never likely to compete in any Olympics as I am only 5’ 6” and now quite old, I am currently slugging it out in Leesa’s Battle of the Blogs which is tiring enough I can tell you. I don’t really understand the rules very well but I do know that I was nominated by lovely Periodic Englishman and that I have received a ‘bye’ in Round 1 of the competition. Initially I thought this meant I had been eliminated, (I was thrown by the ‘bye’ as it were), but it turns out to mean just the opposite. I have a free ride to Round 2. Hurrah! If you want to vote for me, as I understand it, voting in Round 2 commences on Sunday.

I will be continually singing the Oasis song Don’t Look Back in Anger in anticipation of your support and, alternatively, attempting to grow five inches with a view to making it into the national beach volleyball team. It’s the only chance I’ll ever get to walk to work…

Cartoon from